Aug

08

Posted by : admin | On : August 8, 2010

As journalism’s painful transition from print to digital distribution shakes out, I hope there will still be room for Jet magazine.

 

It’s easy, I guess, to make fun of Jet and its sister publication Ebony for having had essentially the same basic layouts for more than 50 years, or to say there’s no need for black-oriented publications in the 21st century.

 

Certainly these venerable titles will have to continue to reinvent themselves, especially online, where sites like The Root have shown the way — but it’s also pretty obvious that this is hardly a “post-racial” society.  Ask Shirley Sherrod.

 

A pensive Hank Aaron as seen in Sept. 5, 1968 issue of Jet

African-Americans might not have as much in common as they did decades ago, but that doesn’t mean their experiences are entirely enmeshed with those of the “mainstream” culture.  Asians, Hispanics and other people of color have publications targeting them specifically, but of course they also consume general-interest media.  Why should it be otherwise with blacks?

Aside from any of this — the fact is that Jet is one of our cultural icons, and should be preserved if at all possible. At its best, it has been a magazine that has jumped out in front  to get to the truth of a story long before the mainstream media grasped it. That’s going to be a theme I’ll return to often in this blog.

Because I’ve been thinking about him, given certain events of the last week, I’ll start with Jet’s coverage of the most underrated baseball player of all time, Hank Aaron.

Yes, Aaron is underrated. I don’t know how else to characterize what has happened to the man who should probably still be Major League Baseball’s home run king, remains its all-time leader in runs batted in, extra base hits and total bases, and ranks among its top five in hits, runs scored, at-bats and games played. Willie Mays seems to be more widely regarded as the “greatest living player.” Bill James, the most influential baseball theorist of the last 35 years, doesn’t even consider Aaron among the top 10 players of all time. On James’ list of the greatest 100 players, last updated in 2001, he ranks Aaron 12th.

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Aug

03

Posted by : admin | On : August 3, 2010

Doing some channel surfing a few months ago, I came across the final 20 minutes or so of “The Shootist,” (1976), John Wayne’s final film, on Turner Classic Movies. Wayne plays a dying gunfighter who comes to a small town for one final stand. Along the way he gets back in touch with his humanity by befriending his landlady (Lauren Bacall) and her son (Ron Howard).

As the film came to its explosive conclusion, there was ubiquitous host Robert Osborne — and the month’s “guest programmer” — Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Like so many African-Americans of his generation and the one to follow, Abdul-Jabbar grew up watching a variety of mainstream movies and television shows, including Westerns, and during his month as a TCM programmer, he chose two Wayne films: “The Shootist” and the 1939 film that truly established him as a star, “Stagecoach.”

I had spirited debates about Westerns with my friend Rob, with whom I went to both high school and college, during the early ’90s, when a lot of us Gen-Xers were really looking closely at racial identity. We went to see the films of Spike Lee and other young black filmmakers. We tried to examine the ultimate legacy of both the nonviolent, hymn-singing SCLC wing of the Civil Rights Movement and the “Black Power” wing, led by Stokely Carmichael. Against that backdrop, Rob couldn’t believe I wanted to watch Westerns, which seemed to him to be “glorifying white folks.” After all, these were films and shows about how the West was “won” by slaughtering Native Americans, by shoving everyone aside for the pursuit of gold, by letting “hanging judges” subvert real justice by putting people to death without the benefit of due process.

I didn’t entirely disagree with his premise. However, my response was that,  if bound by such a standard, there was  almost nothing in American media that could be enjoyed. Cop shows or movies? Certainly not, since so many of the antagonists were black thugs who would’ve been at home in a Lee Atwater campaign narrative. Yes, “Hill Street Blues” included Michael Warren and Taurean Blacque as two good cops, but that show had gone off the air by 1987.  Denzel had a good role on “St. Elsewhere”; Blair Underwood had one on “L.A. Law.” How many major story lines did either of them carry during  a given season? Few, if any.

No, I said, the big and small screens were awash in “glorified” images of white folks, if that was indeed the problem. Clint Eastwood intimidating the bad guys no matter how old he became; Sly Stallone beating up an uppity Mr. T; Bobby DeNiro and Al Pacino as the toughs whose shrewdness and ruthlessness sustained them into middle age; Anthony Hopkins making a serial killer seem dynamically intelligent, witty and fascinating.

John Wayne presents a possible quandary for the black Western fan, however, mostly due to comments he made to Playboy magazine in 1971.

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Jul

31

Posted by : admin | On : July 31, 2010

Welcome to Hard Bop Eights, a series of eight-bar solos on jazz and African-American culture by someone who was probably born about 20 years too late.

My great friend Rob described my interest in music, movies, television, politics and sports of the 1950s and ‘60s as nostalgia for an era I never knew.  I think I mostly find the period interesting for the ways in which it shaped my mother and father, who passed along a lot of their perceptions to me.

Hard Bop was a style that emerged in the mid-‘50s as a response both to the “cool jazz” phenomenon and to Bebop, which was played extremely fast and had very difficult chord progressions. Hard Bop slowed things down, and had a more soulful groove. It was a conscious effort to return to the music’s blues roots, but still express the unique character of such dynamic musicians of the postwar era as Horace Silver, Art Blakey, Hank Mobley, Benny Golson, and Art Farmer.

As Hard Bop marked a return to a certain sensibility, I hope these entries will look back in a useful way at an explosive  period for our culture, and its ongoing influence.

While jazz will be an important element of Hard Bop Eights, I’ll be examining the then newly-integrated world of sports, as well as television, film, radio and the civil rights movement. Interviews, essays, reviews and contemporary press accounts will be part of the mix.

As Art Blakey so frequently said before a Messengers number, “We sincerely hope you enjoy…” Hard Bop Eights.

Dave Wilkerson

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